The statistics are alarming—and readily available with a simple Google search—that young people are leaving church in droves during that crucial transition between high school graduation and the complete embracing of adulthood. But these statistics are not applicable to fundamental teenagers alone. It seems that across the board churches are struggling with retaining the 18–24 year-old demographic. Why? Is it an issue of relevance? Does the church just need to give them their music, their styles, and their brand of fun? I don’t think so. In fact, teens are also leaving churches that practice that philosophy. No, I believe the issue is not relevance, but relationships. After speaking with teens and youth pastors from many different churches, I have seen three common traps.
Messages Without Mentors
Name for me a coach, teacher, or pastor who made an impact on your life. You are probably picturing somebody right now. What was so significant about that person? Probably not a particular class or message or pre-game pep talk. No, the true body of impact usually takes the shape of mentorship.
Don’t get me wrong, Bible messages are an indispensable component to the spiritual growth of any youth group. Too often we have watered down the Bible and spiced-up the fun in our youth ministries. I have found that teenagers can learn the Bible, have the capacity for intense Bible study, will engage in thoughtful biblical discussion, and should be given messages literally packed with Bible truth by a teacher who has studied it and understands it. That said (and it ought to be a given that we are “Bible heavy” in reaching teens), messages without mentors provide teenagers with textbook information and almost glazed “I’m ready for the test now, but who cares?” attitudes.
Funny thing, I can’t remember any messages my pastor preached when I was a teenager. Admittedly, I was not where I needed to be spiritually. However, I do remember some faithful youth workers—simple adult volunteers—who spent time with me. I can envision them now picking me up for activities, answering my inane junior high questions, visiting in my home, and investing time in my life.
Teens catch who we are much more readily than they hear what we say. Maybe that’s why Jesus chose twelve men who would be with Him (Mark 3:14) instead of merely attendees at some classes He taught. Could it be that Rehoboam, the human recipient of Proverbs—arguably the greatest teen instructional booklet of all time taught by the wisest man in history—was more influenced by Solomon’s compromise than all of his incredible teaching? (See 2 Chronicles 11:23, 12:14.) Paul encouraged his Philippian disciples to do not only what they had learned and received and heard, but also what they had seen in him (Philippians 4:9). Honestly ask yourself, “Who is providing true mentorship to my teenagers?”
Rules Without Relationships
I’m glad that basketball games have rules, and although the guy in the striped shirt rarely sees the game the way I do, the application of rules provides boundaries that make the game meaningful. The Bible is replete with rules or principles by which we must govern our lives in a spiritually meaningful way. Moreover, I am in complete agreement with the institution of carefully thought-out standards of behavior which, when properly taught and implemented, help us to abide by the rules. But basketball players who know the rules and faithfully practice don’t necessarily love the coach or the sport. In fact, they might just be playing the game. Playing the game. Hmmm. Sounds like too many teenagers.
Like many basketball teams, I’m afraid our fixation has been on learning rules, developing skills, and being better than the other team. When I coached basketball, I praised the boys for doing what I told them to do, even if we lost the game. I chided them for not doing what I said, even if we won the game. No long-term good comes from winning games, but much long-term good comes from developing a right relationship with the coach.
Our coach is the Lord Jesus Christ. Many teens on the team can tell us about Him because they spend some time around Him, but who has a passion for Him? Our Christian schools are populated with young men who can passionately apply a full court press and lethargically offer “canned” prayers—that is, when they decide to show up for the prayer meeting in the first place! Teens must see in our lives the heartbeat of the Apostle Paul who counted, “All things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus,” and possessed an ardent desire, “that I may know Him!”
Programs Without Purpose
Why do we do it this way? Because that’s the way we have always done it! Sound illogical? Yes, and too familiar. We must train ourselves to ask the piercing “why” questions often. We go off to conference, into the teen room, down to the nursing home, out to the activity, and on the bus for teen soulwinning—but why? We must learn to consciously connect the things we do to the God we love.
Too often we’re on our way to do something as if God is always waiting for us at our pre-set destinations. We’ve succeeded at compartmentalizing almost every facet of our Christianity. Because we sometimes relegate Bible study only to Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, do our teens ever hear us talking about what we learned in our devotions or how God is working in a real way in our lives? How is it that we can take our teens for an hour of prescribed door-knocking only to ignore the strangers at the adjacent booth at Burger King when the soulwinning activity is over? Why is prayer only a scheduled event consisting of a location, prayer requests, and a designated leader in prayer?
Could it be that we have missed the grand purpose of youth ministry? Or of ministry in general? The purpose for ministry is to help people— yes, even teenagers—to become disciples of Jesus Christ. This can only be done when Christians walk with God moment-by-moment. Could it be that we are not really losing teenagers, but that we never really had them?